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By Andrew Brown
It seemed that half the passengers aboard the plane descending upon Canberra were there to serve on panels to assess applications for the new NHMRC Ideas grant scheme. Stepping out of the terminal, we were welcomed by a wintry August wind, reminding some of us from warmer climes, why the Nation’s Capital is sometimes referred to as Canbrrrr.
The NHMRC is located in a non-descript building on a broad boulevard, named after the 19th century journalist Marcus Clarke who wrote of Australia’s convict past in “For the Term of his Natural Life”.
Ninety years later, we may have lost the physical shackles, but another journalist, Donald Horne, believed that we were yet to throw off our mental shackles, limited by a lack of innovative and clever thinking. “Australia is a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck,” was how Horne began The Lucky Country in 1964.
Fifty five years later, it seemed that we were in Canberra to prove him wrong; or at least that we’re now moving in the right direction. The new Ideas scheme would reward innovation and creativity, rather than the safe, ‘same old, same old’ science evidently encouraged by the old Project grant scheme.
With thousands of applications, a score of panels would be needed, each with 15 or so panellists, chosen presumably with a view to minimising conflicts of interest, while ensuring enough coverage for the wide diversity of applications. Well done to the NHMRC for organising what was clearly a mammoth task!
So how do the new Ideas and old Project schemes differ? I will outline a few of the aspects that struck me most.
Spokesperson Power. Rather than just having a primary (1SP) and secondary (2SP) spokesperson and seeking two external assessors (who don’t score), the Ideas scheme has added a tertiary (3SP) and quaternary (4SP) spokesperson. What the spokespersons may have lacked in specific content expertise, they more than made up for in deep diligent digging around the application. I found that the discussion was far more robust, inclusive and extensive than anything I experienced on the old Project panels, with every Ideas panellist chipping in to help illuminate everything from detailed methodological considerations to claims of innovation.
A potential problem with Australia being such a small scientific pond, is that everyone’s got skin in the game, submitting and assessing grants in the same schemes. However, I think we were all able to rise above our ‘prisoner’s dilemma’, and I was impressed with just how seriously everyone took their responsibilities.
Track record takes a back seat. As the name suggests, the Idea proposed is paramount to this scheme, and so an Exceptional idea (Performance Indicator 7) from an early career researcher should have as much chance of being funded as an Exceptional idea from a Nobel laureate, with decades of experience behind them. So all that old, very lengthy track record section is now only captured very briefly as part of Feasibility. The downside of this is that ‘Relative to Opportunity’ is lost, and it will be interesting to see if young pups get their fair share of bones, or if they still mostly go to the Big Dogs.
No rebuttal, no regrets? As a grant applicant, I was relieved that there was no rebuttal this year. It was always a very stressful time to work out how best to address the comments, with last minute experiments squeezed in if you could. But in reality, you knew that all that stress and bother rarely altered the outcome.
However, on the other side of the table as spokesperson, I felt bad that all of that time and effort spent on reviewing an application couldn’t somehow be fed back to the applicant. Had I misinterpreted something that an applicant could’ve easily cleared up if given the opportunity? How would they know what they would need to improve to resubmit a better application next year?
Addressing Scientific Risks has long been integral to application schemes around the globe, but tended to be avoided in the old Project scheme, lest it gave the assessors more ammunition. Now it’s also an integral part of the Ideas application, and was critical when it came to judging the Research Quality. Every research endeavour has its fair share of risks, but have the applicants articulated these and developed suitable coherent strategies to mitigate against them? I’m afraid “Trust us, we’re experts” no longer cuts the mustard.
The new Ideas scheme will of course need some time to reach a steady state, and will probably need some tweaking in response to feedback. I would like to thank the Chair of our panel who was able to focus and summarise the discussion incredibly well, and also our assigned NHMRC officer who bravely fought the notoriously cantankerous RGMS system and won! Both were Exceptional (Performance Indicator 7).
What will the success rate be? I suspect probably lower than for the Project grants in the last few years (~1 in 8). The Ideas scheme represents a smaller slice of the pie, and the pie is not getting any bigger, while the requested budgets of grants increase year by year. So how can we encourage our leaders to invest in a bigger NHMRC Ideas pie? The Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) is no substitute. Its processes are as clear as chocolate mud cake to most of us in the research community, and it’s unclear if it has the same rigor of assessment as the Ideas grants.
From Lucky to Clever Country? I wonder what Donald Horne would think of our current crop of leaders. Would second-rate still apply? In NHMRC scoring terms, would they be lucky to score a 2 (Satisfactory)? Arguably, Bob Hawke might’ve scored an Exceptional 7 with his and Keating’s major structural changes to how Australia is run, along with his aspirations for us to become The Clever Country.
We’ve ridden on the sheep’s back and then on the back of the mining boom, and we are lucky to still have an enviable standard of living (at least generally speaking). But of course that won’t last, unless we face the challenges in front of us and invest in the future. And scientific research should be a key driver for the innovation and creativity required. Like our bountiful natural resources, our scientific resources are not limitless and are precariously balanced. We have a bevy of Clever Countrywomen and men – a highly skilled and deeply committed workforce that yearn to make a difference. And we need to properly invest in them, if we don’t want our children and their children staring at a future that looms like a defunct open-cut mine.
So we should take every opportunity to lobby for Australian research (e.g. more money for the NHMRC Ideas scheme), so that our leaders have the opportunity to step up to become truly Exceptional (Performance Indicator 7).
Now that’s an Idea…